High-Fructose Corn Syrup: Bad for you, bad for the environment?

I start­ed look­ing up high-fruc­tose corn syrup after those dubi­ous pro­pogan­dacom­mer­cials about how “everything’s OK guys.” (I agree with the poster of the video that it does seem akin to a tobac­co com­mer­cial.) Turns out it’s worse than I thought.

I knew that import tar­iffs made sug­ar expen­sive and have dri­ven pro­duc­ers to use corn (cheap and abun­dant here in the US) for sug­ar. I recent­ly learned that fruc­tose (and thus high-fruc­tose corn syrup) more or less sup­press the body’s hor­mon­al sig­nals to stop one’s appetite. (And, for my own part, I knew that it caused prob­lems with my own ener­gy and headaches.)

What I didn’t know was the sug­ar industry’s and our government’s effect on ethanol and alter­na­tive fuels:

Deal Sweet­en­ers: The New York­er

Our cur­rent pol­i­cy is absurd even by Wash­ing­ton stan­dards: Con­gress is pay­ing bil­lions in sub­si­dies to get us to use more ethanol, while keep­ing in place tar­iffs and quo­tas that guar­an­tee that we’ll use less. And while most of the time tar­iffs just mean high­er prices and reduced com­pe­ti­tion, in the case of ethanol the neg­a­tive effects are con­sid­er­ably greater, leav­ing us sad­dled with an infe­ri­or and less ener­gy-effi­cient tech­nol­o­gy and as depen­dent as ever on oil-pro­duc­ing coun­tries.

(I under­stand that ethanol may not be the prover­bial bas­ket in which we put all of our prover­bial eggs; appar­ent­ly too much reliance on corn could dri­ve up food prices.)

And regard­less of the tim­ing though, this is no par­ti­san affair:

A recent study by Amani Elobeid and Sim­la Tok­goz, sci­en­tists at Iowa State Uni­ver­si­ty, pro­ject­ed that if the tar­iffs were removed prices would fall by four­teen per cent and Amer­i­cans would use almost three hun­dred mil­lion gal­lons more of ethanol.

But that isn’t like­ly to hap­pen any­time soon: the Bush Admin­is­tra­tion pro­posed elim­i­nat­ing the ethanol tar­iff this past spring, but Con­gress quick­ly quashed the idea — Barack Oba­ma was among sev­er­al Mid­west­ern sen­a­tors who cam­paigned in sup­port of the tar­iff — and the sug­ar quo­tas appear to be as sacro­sanct as ever. Tar­iffs and quo­tas are extreme­ly hard to get rid of, once estab­lished, because they cre­ate a vicious cir­cle of back-scratch­ing — gov­ern­ment largesse means that sug­ar pro­duc­ers get wealthy, giv­ing them lots of cash to toss at mem­bers of Con­gress, who then have an incen­tive to insure that the largesse con­tin­ues to flow.

We’re pro­tect­ing domes­tic corn farm­ers, but in a very odd way and with odd con­se­quences.

3 thoughts on “High-Fructose Corn Syrup: Bad for you, bad for the environment?

  1. Ooh, neat. Thanks for that link; I saw some­thing about grass being used for ethanol at the NC state fair and that cer­tain­ly looks promis­ing.

    I also saw some­thing about the “ethanol pro­duc­tion leads to ris­ing food prices” being a myth, but I haven’t had a chance to inves­ti­gate that yet.

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